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Sally, our usually sunny 6-year-old, took a look at the pile of gifts under the tree and said gloomily, "I guess there's nothing there for me." Huh?! What was this all about?

"Of course, there are things here for you," I replied with stubborn cheer as Sally's aggressive disappointment put a black hole into our Christmas morning. Her sisters, Marie, 10, and Wendy, 3, seemed to be having no problem. Sally's mood got even uglier as she opened her presents. One of them was a book on origami.

The Japanese art of paper-folding is not big with me; my aesthetic sense is better attuned to the art of making animals out of long, skinny balloons, but Santa had no literature on that. Nevertheless, I figured that some father-daughter interaction and a little artistic achievement would distract Sally from whatever was upsetting her.

We opened the book, and together we applied our thumbs and fists to a sheet of emerald-green paper for 15 minutes, failing to fold it into a shape anything like the swan pictured in the book. Her bad mood bottomed out with tears of frustration. Finally fed up with her, I sent Sally to the protective isolation of her room. That was last year.

Now you know why Sally was expecting to find a live, saddled pony under the tree.
Later, when I tried to figure out why she'd behaved so badly, I remembered that we'd had the same problem with Marie a few years before. So I couldn't blame the Japanese art of paper-folding. The villain both times was good old American excess, specifically our excessive buildup to Christmas.

Years ago, Christmas was a big deal, but there were limits. Every adult — including parents, merchants, and manufacturers — waited for Santa to appear at the tail end of the Thanksgiving Day parades, and the benevolent wave of his hand sufficed to say, "Let the wild rumpus begin!"

Now the hype starts sooner and rises faster to a pitch that hadn't been attainable when each family only had one TV and a couple of radios. Only big department stores felt obliged to enthrone an in-house Santa Claus. Whether a kid got an electric train set or a baseball mitt, it was the satisfying conclusion to a tantalizing month.

But, my wife Betsy and I aren't just innocent bystanders. Like the toy companies, we want our children's Christmas to be as exciting as possible, so from Halloween onward, we talk it up. Embracing the premise that Christmas is wonderful, we give the kids a maximum dose of it. Tales of Santa and Rudolph are read. The story of Baby Jesus and the Three Wise Men is told. Decorations, cards, and cookies are made. Christmas music fills the house.

In the final weeks, men in Santa costumes are so abundant that Sally could practically bounce from knee to knee and never touch the ground 'til the 25th. At my wife's signal, the Christmas-tree pageant unfolds. We drive into the country and wander through a field of contenders to pick the perfect tree. A guy hands me a bow-saw, and an adolescent evergreen yields to my manly strokes, toppling lazily onto its bushy side. We bear it home on the roof like some kind of prize and then decorate it while the kids caper around it in a wild scene like Happy Hour aboard a pirate ship.

The evening before Christmas is spent at my in-laws' house with their five adult children and 16 grandchildren. We trim their tree as the cousins eat cookies, race, wrestle, do headstands, and ride each other. Each child gets to open one gift — a token of the deluge to come. No one's head explodes. We put the girls into pajamas, and on the long drive home, Marie, Sally, and Wendy pass out in the back seat — short-circuited, I think.

Now you know why when Sally came downstairs the next morning, she was expecting to find a live, saddled pony, nickering a glad greeting to her from beside the tree. But it wasn't even a bike Christmas.

When she entered the living room, it struck her that her life would go on pretty much as before, and the letdown could hardly be borne. She had wished away most of a year and then endured the endless pre-Christmas titillations of December just for a new doll, a couple of board games, a paint set, a pair of SpongeBob slippers, a cubic yard of school clothes from Grandma & Grandpa, and, of course, the exasperating origami book.

So what's a parent to do? Knowing why Sally had such a bad time is not particularly useful, except as it helps me get a grip on my own yuletide expectations. Even so, I vowed that the next year, I'd try to cushion her Christmas letdown a little. I resolved to cut back on my pre-Christmas hype by about 20 percent, and I will preach on the nature of expectations and gracious acceptance. But that's all.

Even if Betsy agreed, I wouldn't establish a Moderation Zone around our house and shrink Christmas to sensible proportions inside it.

Trying to be the only sane person in an insane world would make me crazy.

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